Then and Now – a Church Anniversary Sermon

by Hugh McLellan
For with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am 
become two companies. — Gen. 32: 10
WHEN Jacob fled from his home, spurred on in 
haste by the anger of a deceived father and a 
robbed brother, he passed in his flight one of the fords 
of Jordan. As he said, he passed it with his staff. All 
he had was the stick within his hand. The past was 
full of terror and the future full of uncertainty. 
Still he was rich, for he carried in his heart the mem- 
ory of the bestowed blessing, and through the birth- 
right he had become the priest and mediator between 
God and his people. Also he had the memory of a 
vision, the sweetest dream of all the ages, and he could 
construct again in thought the golden ladder, and 
again summon the troops of angels. His material as- 
sets consisted of a wooden stick, but his spiritual as- 
sets were a blessing, an office and an experience. 

When he returned to the Jordan after his years 
with Laban, he was in a different case. God had 
blessed him abundantly and his family was a tribe. 
His flocks and herds moved in vast numbers over the 
desert; his servants were numerous as the servants 
of a king. The blessing had worked. It was without 
boast and with profound reverence to God that, stand- 
ing again at the ford of other days, he said, ''I passed 
over this Jordan with my staff; and now I am become 
two companies'' 

It was a time for retrospection, for meditation, and 
for resolve. The return to the Jordan marked the 
moment for a review of the past and a resolve for the 
future. Indeed, it was on the foundations of the past 
that he built his plans for the future. The crossing 
of the river again was the suggestive occasion for 
memories and resolves. And this is true with all of 
us. The anniversaries of critical experiences create in 
us exalted moods — moods of great gratitude and moods 
of high purpose. He is a dull man who can return 
in place or time to a life crisis and not rise in grati- 
tude or resolve nearer to God. In such a moment we 
stand on a ridge in the way of life. The past stretches 
back, seen from this height in true perspective; the 
future is hidden around the mountains, but as good- 
ness and mercy followed us in the way we have come, 
so shall they "follow us all the days of our life." 

Such a moment is this to which we have returned — 
a moment full of meaning to this congregation. This 
is our anniversary; it is a Jordan of time rather than 
of place. Once more we stand at the moment of our 
small beginnings, the days of our staff; and, like Jacob, 
we have become two bands. It is a time for retro- 
spection, for introspection and for purpose. It is not 
a time for idle boasting or hypocritical self-commenda- 
tion, all of which would but weaken our hands for 
future tasks and cloud the path for our feet. 

That we should rejoice in past success in God's 
work is natural and proper, but the glory is His, 
whose we are, whom we serve. That this band of dis- 
ciples surrounds this altar, our Ebenezer, is but proof 
that ''hitherto the Lord hath helped us'' and that we 
have been ''kept by the power of God." An anniver- 
sary which leaves God out is but a ''tinkling brass 
and clanging cymbal." Adjusting our hearts thus to 
a proper recognition of God, we can now take up some 
questions which naturally arise at every church an- 
niversary. 

I. What has the past year meant to ourselves? 

To Jacob the return to the Jordan meant the dif- 
ference between a staff and two bands. We, too, can 
rejoice that the past year has not been unfruitful. 
Knowing well that it is not the mission of any con- 
gregation to make itself materially important, it is 
still a matter for congratulation and gratitude that 
we are stronger as a group than we were a year ago. 
And this is seen in three ways. 

1. Financially. We all remember the struggles of 
the past when we were a feeble folk. When those, 
who passed, mocked like Sanballat, and wondered what 
this feeble group would do. There were days when 
the only way in which the Lord 's work was kept mov- 
ing was by the sacrifices of a faithful few. Debt hung 
like a millstone around our neck, and expenses 
loomed like high mountains in our path. We thank 
God that to-day we can look the world in the face, 
and point to an honorable discharge of our obliga- 
tions. And it must not be forgotten that a congre- 
gation, like an individual, has a name to keep. The 
world is closely scrutinizing us, and, in the funda- 
mentals of honesty and integrity, we are judged of 
all men. 

So it is with a reasonable pride that we point to 
a year's record in which this church has stood up to 
all its obligations and has earned the respect of right- 
thinking people. In this experience we have learned 
again the great truth that he who sows sparingly 
shall reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully 
shall reap bountifully. The greatest reaping of joy 
and satisfaction comes to those in this congregation 
who in the darker days sacrificed. Theirs now is the 
joy and victory, and God pours into their bosoms an 
overflowing blessing. 

2. In numbers. Numerically we are a stronger 
congregation than we were a year ago. This build- 
ing is rich in the traditions of souls born into the 
kingdom. The church has seen the power of the sim- 
ple gospel working the great change in the lives of 
men and women. Our ears have heard men confess 
with the mouth the Sonship of Christ, and our eyes 
have seen them buried with their Lord in the waters 
of baptism. And this to the Christian is his richest 
experience. He lives over again his own conversion 
in the conversion of others. 

Indeed, the high moments, after all, in the last year 
were not those of paid debts or big offerings, but of 
the great congregation in gospel revival, the fervid 
appeal, the welling song of invitation, and the walk- 
ing to the front of those who came to Christ. These 
were the scenes that stirred our hearts and these 
give us joy to-day. And would not this anniversary 
be meaningless were it otherwise? The living church 
is always an evangelical church, always a gospel 
church, always a witness for Christ and His truth. 
Back of the living church is the undying commission 
of the Master, and He is ''with us'' only as we carry 
out its terms. The church may have many functions, 
but one is chief. It is the herald of the kingdom. It 
is the voice in the wilderness. It is the moving lip 
through which the Spirit calls to sinners. If it is 
not this, it is nothing. 

3. In grace. Well might we ask ourselves in this 
anniversary if we have ''grown in grace.'' A year 
older should see us a year better. Have we moved 
up from the milk of the Word to the strong meat? 
These questions reveal a profound necessity which is 
laid on the church that it grow in grace. To be 
older and not nearer to God is like walking in a 
circle; it is motion without progress. The great func- 
tion of teaching is laid on the church with the same 
imperative as that of preaching. The truth within 
this Bible on the desk is still chained and powerless 
unless it has entered our lives. 

As we look back over the year we rejoice in the 
growth of the Bible school. Here the church may 
function as the teacher of the Word upon minds 
ready to receive. It is regrettable that not all the 
members of the church are engaged in this service. 
To know Christ ought to mean that we teach Him. 
Never before has the way been so open for this ser- 
vice. The work is organized, the literature is abun- 
dant and available, schools of methods instruct us in 
the art, and millions of young people wait on our 
words. A church which is not definitely and serious- 
ly engaged in teaching the will of God has little to 
celebrate in any anniversary. We put the emphasis 
on this teaching function because it is the secret of 
growth. A Christian can no more grow without the 
Word than a man can grow without food. It wiU be 
found that the weak and sickly are those who have 
substituted the husks of man's wisdom for the bread 
of life. This growth in grace is seen in the maturing 
holiness and the strengthening faith of the congrega- 
tion. We rejoice in our strength, and in our numbers, 
but we rejoice rather in the fact that we live closer 
to God than we did one year ago. 

II. What has our past year meant to others? 

Apart from the financial, numerical and spiritual 
growth of the congregation itself there is the broad- 
ening work to be considered on the outside. A con- 
gregation may become big in size and small in spirit. 
A true congregation of Christ is always awake to its 
duties to the whole world. Its horizon is not limited 
to its own church walls. 

In a word, a real church is a missionary institu- 
tion, full of the missionary spirit, and glowing with 
missionary zeal. The church at Antioch, where the 
disciples first received the divine name, still stands 
as an example to all Christian churches in its action 
in choosing out Paul and Barnabas with John Mark, 
and later Silas, and laying hands on them and send- 
ing them out to preach the gospel in heathen lands. 
There is nothing more apostolic than the missionary 
enterprise. An unmissionary church is neither Scrip- 
tural nor humane. It has no favor with God or man. 
It is an anomaly in the world. 

In any anniversary of a church one of the highest 
experiences should be the report of the work of the 
church among the heathen. If the church is repre- 
sented by an actual missionary, his presence at the 
anniversary would mean more than anything else. If 
that may not be, then his report should be read. In 
this anniversary it is a matter of congratulation that 
we hold hands with a missionary across the seas, and 
that through him we are preaching the gospel to those 
who sit in darkness. The question that should arise 
in our hearts to-day is, ''Are we fully represented 
there?'' Does one missionary on the foreign field 
measure our spirit and ability, or are we keeping 
back ''part of the price''? Let us hope that when 
the next anniversary arrives we shall be able to re- 
port another field occupied in the name of Christ and 
of this congregation. 

In addition, it is a matter for congratulation that 
our missionary zeal recognizes the importance of 
preaching the truth in the homeland. A Christian 
America is itself a missionary influence in the world, 
and it should be our aim to save our own land for 
Christ that through it the world may see what God 
hath wrought. In addressing ourselves to this work, 
we should remember that America needs the simple 
gospel. Like the Laodiceans, the people of the United 
States are rich and increased in goods, and think they 
have need of nothing, but, like the Laodiceans, in the 
true riches they are naked and blind. Our country 
needs the unadulterated gospel of Christ to save its 
soul. Being saved, it becomes a base of operations for 
the salvation of the whole world. This saving work 
is in circles. First the individual, then the family, 
then the city or community, then our own land, then 
the whole world. The ever-widening waves of gospel 
truth should not rest until they wash up against the 
shores of the farthest land. 

III. A time for reconsecration. 

Benjamin Franklin, when speaking before the Con- 
stitutional Convention, urging that the convention ask 
divine guidance in its deliberations, said: ''If it be 
true that a sparrow can not fall without His notice, 
how can it be that an empire shall rise without His 
aid?" It was a word fitly spoken. We would do 
weU to ponder it, and in this anniversary ask, "How 
can we succeed without God?" We have indicated 
that this anniversary is a season for recapitulation; 
it is more a season of reconsecration. "We set the 
watch in vain if we watch without Him; we build 
the walls in vain if we lay a stone without Him. On 
this occasion this church should open its soul to God. 
If He enters our lives, we must succeed. We shall be 
the speaking mouth, but He shall be the voice; we 
shall be the moving hand, but He shall be the strength ; 
we shall be the visible body, but He shall be the life. 

The apostolic power shall be ours only as the 
apostolic indwelling of the Spirit is ours. We ought 
to be able to give the apostolic secret of the victorious 
life, ''I live, yet not I, for Christ liveth in me.'' It 
was said of Stephen's persecutors that '^they were 
not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit with which 
he spake." And this wisdom and this spirit were of 
God. Our own wisdom and our own spirit are easily re- 
sisted, but the Spirit of God in us is mighty and will 
prevail. So let us open our hearts to the Spirit of 
God, that as we move forward from this anniversary 
day we may do so in His wisdom and power. 

This kind of consecration will solve all the difficul- 
ties and problems confronting us in the year ahead. 
If we are consecrated, so are our money, our time, 
our energy, our talents and our wills. There are no 
financial or missionary problems unsolved by a con- 
secrated congregation. In giving itself it gives all. 
If the subjective problem is solved, the objective prob- 
lem ceases to exist. The giants which the spies saw 
in Canaan were mere men distorted by cowardice. 
There were no giants to Joshua and Caleb. Canaan 
lies before us, and we are weU able to go up and 
possess the land. 

Conclusion. It would be a sad mistake if in this 
anniversary we failed to remember those who were 
with us one year ago, but are not here to-day. Some 
of those who worked with us, and bore the heat and 
burden of the day, have entered into rest. So is this 
congregation represented in heaven. And this teaches 
us that with each anniversary we, too, are nearing the 
temple which is eternal in the heavens. The church 
which we now see is a meeting-place and a parting- 
place. The tides flow in, then flow out. It is like the 
story told of the old Arab who, one day at evening, 
after traveling across the desert, came to a pretentious 
building on the edge of an oasis. He tethered his 
camel at the gate and went into the hall, and, spread- 
ing his carpet, lay down to rest. Soon a noble-looking 
Arab entered and demanded of the traveler what he 
was doing in the king's palace. The Arab replied that 
he took the building for a caravansary. *'No,'' said 
the other, ''it is the king's palace, and I am the king.'' 
The traveler then asked the king how long he had 
lived there; and he told him. He then asked who 
lived in it before he did. He answered, ''My father." 
"And who before him?" "His father," and so on 
back through many generations. "Then," asked the 
traveler, "who shall live here after you?" "My 
son," he answered. "And after him?" "His son, 
and so on down to the end of time." "Well," said 
the traveler, "any house which receives and sends out 
such a continuous succession of guests is not a palace, 
but a caravansary." Such in one aspect is the church 
with its passing congregations. We come into this 
sweet fellowship only to pass out sooner or later into 
the fellowship on high. These anniversaries reveal the 
silent movement of these tides of life, and the names 
of those who have rolled up the carpet and moved 
away beyond the horizon are in our hearts. If it 
be that people come and go through this church, we 
should see to it that while they rest thus in the earth- 
ly caravansary, they are touched with grace to fit them 
for the eternal home.